The king’s the thing down at the Lansburgh—at least for a good stretch—in a play that’s usually about a girl with a thing for guy who barely knows she exists.
Oh, all will end well between the two real principals, and with all the usual buttons done snugly up and bows handsomely tied; it’s a Shakespeare Theatre Company production, after all, and that usually means both a healthy respect for the text and a certain stateliness about the design.
But All’s Well That Ends Well—that stalker’s romance, that lively comedy of loathing and cruelty and class—has never seemed quite so in touch with its characters’ frailties, and that sense begins with the story’s dying French king, played magisterially and with heart by Ted van Griethuysen. That’s because Michael Kahn’s measured and sensitive reading of the play is rooted in the knowledge that the heroine, Helena, and her oblivious beloved, Bertram, have both quite recently lost their fathers—and so to both of them, in this production more so than in most, the king’s seemingly hopeless condition is more grave, more personal than the mere fading of a sovereign.
And such a king: Van Griethuysen makes him a marvel of a man, perceptive about his courtiers even as he sits exhausted in that wheelchair, gallant among his soldiers even as his body betrays him, weary enough that his dim hope for a cure seems less like fatalism than hard-won hospital fatigue. When Miriam Silverman’s bright-eyed, good-natured country mouse comes to court, full of promises that her doctor father knew the cure and just happened to teach it to her before he died, both the instinct to doubt and the rush of hope really register on van Griethuysen’s face—and a scene or so later, when a hale and hearty king makes his entrance with Helena, dancing, what’s been a rue-tinged first act springs brightly, joyfully to life.
If all this talk of kings and things makes it sound like All’s Well isn’t about that central odd couple anymore, fear not. Helena still loves above her station; she still tells the young lord’s mother (Marsha Mason) and the king before she alerts Bertram himself. And Tony Roach’s callow, arrested-adolescent Bertram, presented not with a confession of devotion but a royal command to marry—this count is Helena’s reward, remember, for saving the king—still reacts as you might expect from a bravo who’s only recently left his rural home to be dazzled by the more sophisticated distractions of court life. (Which is to say badly: Bertram runs off to the wars, but not before swearing that his new bride will never share his bed until she can present him with a baby he’s fathered, and remove the family ring from his finger.)
The preening-braggart antics of Michael Bakkensen’s paper-soldier Parolles are as ripely diverting as they ought to be, too—while Adam Green’s Lavatch is, if anything, more wittily knowing than usual. And Paxton Whitehead puts a marvelously patrician gloss on the fond contempt his Lord Lafew displays for Parolles in particular, allowing us to understand pretty clearly that it extends to the world’s fools in general.
But it’s the gravity of those opening scenes—the manifest mortality that underlies them, the wisdom and charity in the characters Mason and especially van Griethuysen have created—that grounds what comes after. It sets stakes, offers ballast; you can see Mason’s big-hearted dowager countess in Helena’s future, and if things go right Bertram will survive his follies and his wars to become the keen, righteous man his king is. It’s not flashy, this reading, and not revolutionary. But it’s quietly revelatory, and as it finds the humanity at the heart of a play that often doesn’t work, it can be moving indeed.